One day had passed since the attack on the rangers’ camp, and Oropher could tell Amdir and Meneldur were becoming uneasy. He did not blame them, as he had begun to feel likewise. The wilds of Highmoor almost felt hostile to them, like a corrupt chill was crawling across the land. Such a mysterious environ was perfect for paranoia to settle over the three scouts. Every noise, every movement set them on edge, expecting to see another of the crimson-wearing barbarians the Rhudaurians had perceivingly named ‘red monsters’. Nevertheless, Oropher had a task to do, as did his men, and he would rather feel the blade of any barbarian than let down his uncle, the King Malvegil.
The three men could only speculate what had happened to their three other companions. Amdir became increasingly anxious about his younger brother, Aldarion. Meneldur was silent, but Oropher knew he too was nervous about the fate of his close friend Rumil. Oropher was even concerned about Barahir, possibly his most gifted soldier. Could even such a skilled warrior be destroyed by the ‘red monsters’? The chances were that the three others were fine, but the unsettling atmosphere gave thoughts and images of hopelessness. The grim, simple sanctuary of Highmoor Tower felt like Lindon after becoming subject to these plains.
Night had fallen across Highmoor. There were no stars tonight. Oropher wished to travel a little further before camp was made. He looked around at his men. Amdir was becoming increasingly concerned, whilst Meneldur was unreadable, his face blank. He had not spoken in hours.
Suddenly Amdir stopped dead in his tracks and ducked down. His two companions copied him. Oropher slowly crawled next to Amdir.
“What is it?” The Ranger General whispered.
“I saw a figure running towards us. He was at the top of the hill over there,” he inconspicuously pointed to the position. “I have no idea where he went.”
Oropher looked at Meneldur and gave him the signal to be ready for attack, who nodded minimally before patiently drawing an arrow from his quiver and readying his bow. Oropher smoothly drew his blade, as did Amdir. The rangers exchanged knowing looks as they heard footsteps approach. Oropher readied himself, like a compressed spring. The sounds drew closer and closer, louder and louder. The runner could not be more than a few yards ahead now, yet the darkness and the untamed terrain made sight almost impossible.
Suddenly the footsteps stopped. Then Oropher heard a familiar voice.
“Men of Arthedain”.
The three rangers stood up to see Aldarion staring at them. Amdir sheathed his sword and embraced his younger brother. Oropher and Meneldur could but sigh and chuckle in relief. After the two brothers had exchanged greetings, Oropher walked to Aldarion.
“My lord,” Aldarion bowed. “Forgive me, but I spied your company and I decided to join you – this place is so desolate…”
“Any news?” Oropher said.
“I have not seen any of the barbarians yet. Barahir headed north and west, and Rumil went east, close to the northern parts of the Ettenmoors. I have not heard from either of them since we set out.”
Amdir chuckled. “I still do not believe you saw us before we saw you.”
“I could always see better than you, brother,” Aldarion smiled. “Besides, there are more of you to see.”
“I am glad to see you, Aldarion, but we should quieten ourselves. Remember where we are. We should press on and make camp for the night.” The men nodded in recognition of their master’s orders, and began to walk once again.
The company had made camp in a tunnel in a small hill, probably once home to a pack of wolves now long since gone. Oropher’s dreams were again troubled. He stood upon a high mountain in the centre of Arnor. In Rhudaur, he saw black shapes moving across the plains, putting out the lights that illuminated the land. In Cardolan he saw the capital, Tyrn Gorthad, but dark spectres haunted its towers. He found hope when he saw a beacon in Arthedain, but he then realised it was Fornost, burning. All hope left him. But in the west, upon the waves of the sea, rode great ships manned by a great many knights in silver armour.
Oropher awoke. He thought attempting to slumber again was futile, and even if he did slip into sleep he feared the dreams. He delicately moved away from the inanimate forms of Meneldur and Amdir and went to the entrance of the tunnel, where Aldarion was on his watch. Oropher sat himself opposite to the young ranger.
“Something troubles, you, my lord?”
“Nothing. Just dreams,” Oropher replied.
“You know, the Elves believe all dreams are symbols of something. Such as feelings, or the future.”
“Well, I am sorry to disappoint you, Aldarion, but I am not an Elf.”
Both men laughed. Aldarion looked up at the sky sadly.
“The stars are shut out,” he said. “They are veiled by the darkness.”
Oropher gave him a searching look. “Just because you cannot see the stars, it does not mean they are not there.”
Aldarion stared at Oropher. “Well spoken.”
“If not for your face, I would never think you were Amdir’s brother,” stated Oropher. “You speak of Elves, and of the stars, but Amdir speaks of battle and duty.”
“Amdir does not see far, but what he does see he sees and judges well,” said Aldarion. “But I see farther. Though that does not make me better than him. Quite the contrary.”
“No,” said Oropher. “You are a match for each other, though your qualities are different. Get some rest, Aldarion. If I cannot sleep it would be best for me to take the watch.”
Aldarion stood up and nodded in thanks, then retired. Oropher remained, watching the sky, motionless. For a second, he saw a bright star through a gap in the clouds. And then it vanished again.
It was now three days since they had set out from Highmoor, and two since the attack on the camp. The clouds had begun to clear and the bright sun strengthened the rangers’ resolves somewhat. The company was now very spread out, with Aldarion two dozen or so metres in front of Oropher, and Meneldur and Amdir behind him to the left and right. They had begun to climb a steep hill when Aldarion ran back down to them in haste, with a grim look upon his face.
“You should all come and look at this,” he said, urgently and dreadfully.
After passing concerned looks, the others followed him to the top. Aldarion ducked, then crawled as they reached the peak, which the rest of the company copied.
Hidden in the undergrowth, the other three rangers fully understood Aldarion’s urgency.
In a small valley below them, a great host of red-clad warriors marched southwards.
“By the Valar,” muttered Amdir. “They are heading straight towards Highmoor Tower. The garrison cannot hold out against such a force! How many would you say there were?”
“One-thousand strong, or at least that is what I would estimate,” said Aldarion.
“I would agree.” Oropher sounded bleak.
“What should we do, my lord?” asked Meneldur, his face pale. "The garrison at the tower can be no more than one-hundred, at best. They have no hope of holding out"
“We have to go back to Highmoor. Then we alert the states. We have to send for reinforcements.”
“There surely will not be enough time!” said Amdir.
“We have to do what we can, Amdir,” commanded Oropher, his tone now very imperative. “Ready yourselves, men. We run.”